Michael “Digger” Welsh, a much-loved member of the tight-knit Queenstown community on Tasmania’s west coast, was drinking coffee and chatting to colleagues after arriving for work at the Mount Lyell copper mine at 5:30am on January 17, 2014.
- Coroner Simon Cooper on Friday released his findings into a miner’s death on Tasmania’s west coast in 2013
- He said the draw point where the miner worked had been at least “unstable” for several shifts before his death
- The miner’s death came just six weeks after two other workers died while working in the mine
It was the last time Mr Welsh, a married father of five, and a grandfather, went underground.
At 7:45am, a mudrush inundated the area where he was working, killing him.
Coroner Simon Cooper on Friday released his findings into Mr Welsh’s death, and the deaths of Craig Gleeson and Alistair Lucas, who died while working in the same mine six weeks earlier.
Mr Welsh and about 30 others had their usual pre-shift safety briefing at 5:45am and were assigned their underground tasks.
Mr Welsh’s job that day was to “bog”, or remove broken rock, at a draw point — an area of the mine where ore is loaded.
Before he started the bogging work, Mr Welsh and shift supervisor David Woolley inspected the draw point, and discussed how to best undertake the job.
“Mr Woolley said in his evidence that not long after leaving Mr Welsh, he called him on the radio and asked him how he was going. Mr Welsh led Mr Woolley to understand that he had almost finished the job,” Mr Cooper said.
Mr Cooper said fellow loader operator Michael Barnett “immediately knew something was wrong”, when he noticed at 7:45am a “heap of mud” near where Mr Welsh had been working.
Mr Barnett repeatedly called out Mr Welsh’s name on the radio but Mr Welsh did not respond.
“Switching to emergency channel 6, Mr Barnett called, ’emergency, emergency, emergency, everyone make their way to the tag board’, something he repeated twice,” Mr Cooper said.
“Mr Barnett then broadcast on the emergency radio channel a message to the effect that there had been a mud rush … and that he could not find Mr Welsh.”
Mr Cooper said that after about 30-to-45 minutes of Mr Barnett using his loader to dig away the mud, Mr Barnett said he saw what proved to be the lights of Mr Welsh’s loader.
Judson Burke, who had joined the search, found Mr Welsh’s body, lying face down in the mud, about 8:25am. The loader, which weighted between 60 and 80 tonnes, was pushed back by the mud, its windows destroyed and the cab was full of mud and rocks, Mr Cooper said.
Mr Cooper said the draw point had been at least “unstable” for several shifts before Mr Welsh’s death.
“In fact, the very reason Mr Welsh — a highly experienced and highly regarded bogger operator — was allocated to the draw point … was because it was a problem and he was thought the most capable person available to deal with the issue.”
The deaths that ‘touched many people deeply’
Mr Welsh’s death came just six weeks after two other workers died while working in the mine.
Craig Gleeson, 45, and Alistair Lucas, 25, were carrying out routine maintenance work, when a temporary platform they were working on collapsed and they fell 22 metres down a mine shaft.
Like Mr Welsh, both men were much-loved members of the Queenstown community.
Mr Gleeson, a father of three, had been married to his wife for 18 years. His son, Michael, also worked at the Mount Lyell mine.
“Known as Glees, Mr Gleeson was popular with his workmates and recognised by them as very experienced,” Mr Cooper said.
Mr Lucas was engaged to be married to Emmy-Lou Smith, with whom he had a son, Kobe.
“Like Mr Gleeson, he was a member of a mining family. His father Philip was also employed at Mount Lyell.”
Trade assistant Allan Stuart-Mitchell was near the two men on the day they died. It was his job to hand them tools.
Mr Cooper said a 62-kilogram piece of machinery upon which they were working fell about half a metre onto the soft wood, unsecured platform, which gave way.
“Neither was anchored by a lanyard attached to a safety harness. The fall from the platform was the direct cause of their deaths,” Mr Cooper said.
Mr Stuart-Mitchell used a nearby telephone to call mine rescuer Robert Butterfield who, with Lachlan Brown, abseiled down the shaft to Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas. Mr Gleeson had no signs of breath or a pulse.
Mr Lucas was responding verbally but, Mr Cooper said, in a way that made little sense.
Mr Lucas was pronounced dead on arrival at the Queenstown Hospital.
Gleeson’s and Lucas’s deaths ‘entirely avoidable’
Mr Cooper praised Mr Butterfield and Mr Brown’s role in the rescue effort.
Mr Cooper found Mr Gleeson’s and Mr Lucas’s deaths were “entirely aviodable had basic safety principles been adhered to” and made several recommendations to improve safety.
In relation to Mr Welsh’s death, he said he could not make a finding that “by reason of any failure to strictly adhere to” controls at ore loading points in the mine resulted in the mud rush that caused Mr Welsh’s death, but recommended improvements to risk management tools and decision-making processes.
Mine owner Copper Mines of Tasmania said it would consider Mr Cooper’s report in detail and implement all recommendations.